When you’re young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.
But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.
In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions – hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy – are veiled so we can’t get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.
Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind – which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.
So what can we do? How can we reclaim, use, enjoy, and be at peace with our whole estate – without being overwhelmed by its occasional swamps and fumes?
This is where R.A.I.N. comes in.
R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, to summarize a powerful way to expand self-awareness. (I’ve adapted it a bit below, and any flaws in the adaptation are my own, not Michelle’s.)
R = Recognize: Notice that you are experiencing something, such as irritation at the tone of voice used by your partner, child, or co-worker. Step back into observation rather than reaction. Without getting into story, simply name what is present, such as “annoyance,” “thoughts of being mistreated,” “body firing up,” “hurt,” “wanting to cry.”
A = Accept (Allow): Acknowledge that your experience is what it is, even if it’s unpleasant. Be with it without attempting to change it. Try to have self-compassion instead of self-criticism. Don’t add to the difficulty by being hard on yourself.
I = Investigate (Inquire): Try to find an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness. Not detached intellectual analysis but a gently engaged exploration, often with a sense of tenderness or friendliness toward what it finds. Open to other aspects of the experience, such as softer feelings of hurt under the brittle armor of anger. It’s OK for your inquiry to be guided by a bit of insight into your own history and personality, but try to stay close to the raw experience and out of psychoanalyzing yourself.
N = Not-identify (Not-self): Have a feeling/thought/etc., instead of being it. Disentangle yourself from the various parts of the experience, knowing that they are small, fleeting aspects of the totality you are. See the streaming nature of sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away due mainly to causes that have nothing to do with you, that are impersonal. Feel the contraction, stress, and pain that comes from claiming any part of this stream as “I,” or “me,” or “mine” – and sense the spaciousness and peace that comes when experiences simply flow.
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R.A.I.N. and related practices of spacious awareness are fundamental to mental health, and always worth doing in their own right. Additionally, sometimes they alone enable painful or challenging contents of mind to dissipate and pass away.
But often it is not enough to simply be with the mind, even in as profound a way as R.A.I.N. Then we need to work with the mind, by reducing what’s negative and increasing what’s positive. (It’s also necessary to work with the mind to build up the inner resources needed to be with it; being with and working with the mind are not at odds with each other as some say, but in fact support each other.)
And whatever ways we work with the garden of the mind – pulling weeds and planting flowers – will be more successful after it R.A.I.N.s.